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Cook County Board Tue Jan 26 2010

The Preckwinkle Campaign Finds the Path to Victory

On paper, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (4th) was likely to be the only candidate with the record, temperament, and political wit to survive a crowded field looking to replace the doomed Todd Stroger as President of the nation's second largest County organization. Her zest for picayune policy matters and her regular conscientious objections to Mayoral initiatives squared with a carefully cultivated reputation for good government progressivism, and her South Side lakefront political base offered both an early fundraising engine and added diversity to her electoral appeal. But Cook is a big and tough county with maddeningly feudal politics--it would take uninterrupted hard work to define and pursue the path to victory.

Preckwinkle's run for the Presidency was born out of frustration over a comparatively obscure policy issue: the overhaul of the County's temporary juvenile detention facilities. Todd Stroger tapped Preckwinkle, a well-regarded "progressive" South Side alderman, to serve with high-powered attorney Demetrius Carney to serve on a transition team to advise him on how to fix the system. Preckwinkle says she and Carney worked intensely to produce a report for Stroger. The result?

"He ignored it. He appointed the judge to oversee the system. I asked Demetrius why we went through all that work, and he told me that was the first he was hearing about it himself." Stroger was unresponsive and uninterested in the type of reform that Preckwinkle claims as her primary motivation: making government transparent, efficient, and a force for good.

These principles are encapsulated in one of Preckwinkle's primary campaign messages, that she is the only independent and progressive candidate running for the position.

It is a campaign that raised eyebrows in its infancy; Preckwinkle's announcement came as she was negotiating with community groups and the Fifth Floor to come to a compromise on a Community Benefits Agreement to control city activities should Chicago have won the 2016 Olympics. Around the same time Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed leaked a story that Preckwinkle was in talks with Mayor Daley to win his support for her bid for County Board President. Soon after a weak, generally unenforceable CBA emerged and the most active community groups were quieted.

Preckwinkle is unapologetic about asking for the Mayor's support--"I would value his support," she told me in a brief conversation at her campaign headquarters. Given that Preckwinkle's base is a blend of the South Side lakefront middle class and north side good government liberals, this could have raised some eyebrows. As the Reader's Ben Joravsky pointed out in his endorsement of Preckwinkle, she also voted for Daley's parking meter fund draining budget, when in years past she had been one of few aldermen willing to vote against major Mayoral proposals (including the parking meter deal).

But Preckwinkle's reputation as a Mayoral gadfly is probably overstated, as she would herself admit. She isn't reflexively "anti-Daley". When asked what she thought the word "independent" meant--independent from whom--she didn't answer with a political or organizational definition, but a more abstract one: independence meant acting on your conscience and evaluation of best policy, not based on political allegiances or organizational ties, whether those be to the Mayor or to his opponents. When pressed after she pointed out that she had been elected against the Machine candidate (because, after all, so was Dick Mell), she emphasized that her independence has to do with her decision making, not personalities.

There's no real incongruity between that definition and in a broad sense her political history. There are of course dark spots. She has rarely bucked hard against her local 800 pound gorilla--the University of Chicago, with its insatiable appetite for property--and she sought and accepted an endorsement from Rev. Leon Finney Jr., whose role as a key Mayoral ally on thorny race-related issues and South Side development issues has come under increasing scrutiny since long-known talk of alleged "slum-like" conditions in buildings he manages has bubbled up into the media. Finney's buildings are in Willie Cochran's ward to the south. Still, Preckwinkle's apparent cozy relationship with developers should be a reason to pay close to attention; her campaign did not return a call seeking comment about the Finney issue.

In any case, Preckwinkle is not known for pandering, and can be short with people who expect her to do so:

She went on to explain that she has a philosophical opposition to assigning exclusive control of a public street to a private group, even if it's made of up people who live there. What's more, she explained, she practices what she preaches: she lives near a hospital where on-street parking is hard to find. "But I knew that when I moved there," she said.

A few minutes later, another resident revived the request for permit parking.

Preckwinkle looked her dead in the eye and said: "I don't believe in permit parking."

"But that's what you believe," the resident replied. "We're talking about the residents."

"For better or worse, I'm your elected representative."

In an election for an office so closely associated with some of the worst elements of Chicago politics--the patronage, the contracts, the tax hikes (necessary or not), the general air of ineffeciency and waste, Preckwinkle's no-nonsense policy-focused attitude has served her very well. The media circus surrounding Todd Stroger's ascension to his father's seat dogged him in the four years of his first term, and for voters--particularly middle class voters in the City and suburbs who interact with the County mostly just to pay it--smart and a little boring may seem like the perfect remedy.

Yet there is a buzz of excitement around Preckwinkle's campaign, from her office on South Cottage Grove to her several field offices which are packed with volunteers phone banking for donations and voter IDs every night of the week. Her campaign staff has built a surprisingly vibrant and varied campaign, with a sophisticated fundraising operation that has both maximized her local relationships and expanded well outside of them, and a deep field operation that has anywhere between a few dozen and up to eighty volunteers making phone calls for Preckwinkle on a given night. The campaign early on leveraged Preckwinkle's reputation as a progressive independent to establish relationships with the non-machine ward and township organizations, giving her campaign capacity to capitalize quickly when media attention to the race would organically raise her name recognition. While few North Shore or west suburban voters had ever heard of her, Democratic activists, particularly from the party's liberal wing, knew her. Her solid fundraising and string of organizational and editorial endorsements kept her in the running as a viable candidate, so when the media began to focus on the race her increase in name recognition could be turned around quickly into "pluses", or reliable votes, by allied local Democratic operations.

The campaign also held onto its advertising dollars as long as possible, making sure everything came together harmoniously for the maximum effect and maximum momentum. "It's like a symphony, bringing all the pieces together at just the right time," says Scott Cisek, Preckwinkle's campaign manager, who previously worked for Emil Jones Jr. Cisek has organized a remarkably energetic campaign on a modest budget, and meticulously documented it on Twitter. When I asked Cisek and Field Director Maceo Brown what the proportion of paid to volunteer canvassers was, they both laughed. "That's an easy one," Cisek said. "Zero percent to a hundred percent," Brown answered.

Preckwinkle's ability to build such an impressive volunteer organization for what is considered by casual voters a mid-level office, and doing it without promises of patronage jobs, could only happen because of the reputation she has built among activist and watchdog groups over her years in office. The combination of frustration with Party insularity and the passion for "genuine" progressives in positions of real authority could only be brought together in the candidacy of a politician with a track record like Preckwinkle's. Some recent disappointing positions that would usually have brought more criticisms from her base--her support for demolition of the Gropius buildings on Michael Reese, her support for the Olympic bid, Daley's budget--have been overlooked, despite insinuation that a deal was cut with the Mayor. But it would be unreasonable to look at Preckwinkle's respectable record of independence and infer anything nefarious.

Preckwinkle has also benefitted from a spotty field of opponents. She says her first call when considering the race was to Congressman Danny Davis to discuss his interest in running. Eventually Preckwinkle declared her candidacy anyway without Davis having made a decision, knowing it would take her time to build up the warchest and establish the relationships and networks necessary to overcome her limited name recognition and comparatively small political base. Since Davis' decision to stay in Congress, the settled field has seen a tidal wave of bad press: Metropolitan Water District Commissioner Terry O'Brien has been accused of hiring relatives and profiting from MWRD contracts. Dorothy Brown has had trouble from the get go too, beginning with accusations that a staffer misused EarnFare employees by having them collect petition signatures and most recently with the "jeans day" flap. Todd Stroger, as expected, was never able to overcome his high unfavorables to compete in public opinion polls, setting off a vicious cycle that prevented him from raising real money or calling in political favors.

The alderman also walked a careful line to avoid getting pulled into the racial politics dimension of the race. Early on as the field was still forming, local media made much of the "splitting" of the "black vote", a narrative interpretation that doesn't reflect the reality of multi-jurisdictional contests. After all, hadn't white voters been electing John Stroger and black voters electing Mayor Daley--and any number of white candidates--over opponents of their own race? While the racial politicking in the race has turned ugly, Todd Stroger does have something of a legitimate beef, in that he is held to a different standard than Mayor Daley, who has been guilty of all types of insider favoritism and fiscal tomfoolery. Whether that is solely a funciton of race is unprovable--again, John Stroger was pretty widely liked and rarely raked over the coals as his son has been. But the appearance of that double standard alone may have some effect on the vote of some black voters, but as always, the issue is not as clear as narrative-focused media would like--nor are "black voters" quite the unsophisticated monolith often assumed.

Chicago has had a constant tension between what former Reader columnist Gary Rivlin called "white reform and black reform", or process-oriented reform (transparency, ending patronage) and black reform (social and distributive justice). So it can be unclear what a local politician means when they call themselves "progressive": do they mean in the process sense, making government more cheap and efficient and "fair"? Or in the distributive sense, meaning delivering services and work to plug holes in the social safety net? Preckwinkle's definition of "progressive" was not as clear-cut as her definition of "independent". Cisek says that voters all over the County mainly want to see the government deliver its existing services as efficiently as possible, and that the infamous sales tax hike symbolizes all of that. "That's definitely what we hear the most, concern about that sales tax."

Will the alderman be able to walk that line? If one were to define the electoral coalition most likely to get her to victory on February 2nd, process-minded reformers--petit liberal suburbanites and the city's Lakefront middle class and professionals (of all different races)--may expect "cutting waste" to take precedence over delivering services. Should she fail to give the impression that she is attacking waste, those voters could sour on her quickly. Certainly her widely broadcasted campaign message has focused on eliminating corruption and waste; but on November 19th Preckwinkle released her "Compact for Change", a comprehensive policy statement that touches on many of county government's activities. (By comparison, Terry O'Brien has a somewhat detailed positions summary, and Dorothy Brown has a detailed look at the problems with County health services.). The "Compact for Change" focuses on process-themed reforms, but also on social justice issues, including crime prevention, health care distribution and, importantly, sentencing and detention policies.

But that is in the future. In the meantime, Preckwinkle and her bare bones staff run their warroom on 47th and Cottage Grove with an endearing, scrappy gusto. Volunteers whisk about the office to provide phones and phone lists, and her small paid staff pore over the schedule for the day and prioritize meetings. The narrow room, covered in maps and littered with electric space heaters and third-hand office furniture, feels worn. Alderman Preckwinkle, looking exactly like a history teacher grading papers, sits at a small table in the back signing thank you letters. With decades in local government and support from some heavy hitters, Preckwinkle is hardly an outsider--but her simple, singular focus on getting her job done could very well carry her to a clear victory on election day. Echoing what several of her staffers said earlier, she waves an arm to encompass the table covered in stacks of letters.

"I'm focused on February 2nd."

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DM / January 27, 2010 7:57 AM

Sounds like the author is auditioning for a job with the new Preckwinkle administration as Press Officer

Ramsin / January 27, 2010 9:14 AM

No thanks. Not sure that thinking a campaign is well-run is the same as saying anything about the candidate's qualifications or future performance. Is there any question that Preckwinkle started from the furthest behind and has made the most progress towards winning? How she performs is another question. Also, considering I was the first one to bring up her endorsement by a slumlord, and speculated about a potential Olympics deal cut with the Mayor well over a year ago, I don't know that I'd fit the bill.

Sorry your candidate isn't winning, but don't question people's integrity behind it.

kettel2 / January 27, 2010 10:38 AM

Preckwinkle...seems like a very smart honest lady...and they type that would get things done...I am all for go girl!!!!

Rachel / January 27, 2010 10:47 AM

Nicely put, Ramsin.

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